Hydro dams drowning the rainforest

Huge hydropower projects are emerging in the Amazon, a starting point for a new era of energy thirsty industrial development in Brazil. Environmentalists, fishermen, small farmers and indigenous peoples are joining in a fight against these gigantic dams that strikes hard on both peoples livelihood and on Mother Nature.

Yet the rapids in Rio Tapajos are free and running


Anders Friström
Artikel 2013-5 Anders Friström

Outside the recruitment office a row of patient men waits in the warm and humid tropical darkness. They are waiting for a possible temporary employment that maybe will realize itself tomorrow at the large dam-building site of Belo Monte. They have travelled from all over the country for the chance of employment. Tens of thousands have already arrived. There is hardly room for all of them, that´s why they are queuing all night long.

More than 20 000 people are employed here. Busy building what will become the third largest hydropower dam in the world. Earth and rock masses corresponding to the volume of the entire Panama Canal are being removed to create dams, dykes and long canals leading the water towards the giant turbines.

The Belo Monte-dam is constructed in the Xingu River in eastern Amazonas. The last turbine will be installed within seven years. The energy consortium of Norte Energia is the purchaser, while the building process is run by another consortium called CCBM (Consórcio Construtor de Belo Monte). The money invested comes to 80 per cent from Brazilian government sources. Up to a third of the nearby city of Altamira will be put under water.


The popular resistance against the dam project is overwhelming. MAB, Movimento do Atingidos do Barragens, is the leading social movement in organizing the dam affected people in the region.

– All those who get their life changed are affected, says Iury Paulino, coordinator of MAB in the Altamira region. Those who get their homes put under water, those who gets their livelihood devastated and those who have to move just because the costs of living have been rising so sharply when the construction work has drawn ten thousands of people here.

To MAB the hydropower dams are a first step in a strategy of the Brazilian government to exploit the riches of the Amazon. The electricity from the dams is meant primarily for energy hungry mining and metal processing industry. Only a small portion of the electricity is expected to get its citizens to benefit. With the roads that are built during the construction the surrounding area is open to further exploitation from logging, cattle ranching and soy farming. The mining of bauxite, gold and ore in large scale pits will also contribute to the deforestation. Therefore MAB consider the commitment against the large hydropower dams as strategically important.

The Amazon rainforest is a globally important carbon sink and deforestation, as well as the dams, results in large emissions of greenhouse gases. Hydropower is considered a renewable energy source, but the dams in this region still have a considerable impact on climate. The submerged forest emits large amounts of methane for a long time. According to the climate researcher Philip M. Fernside at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) it will take at least 40 years until the Belo Monte-dam is gives a climate positive output. He then includes a bigger planned regulating dam upstream at Babaquara and the relatively large amount of methane that origins from the decomposition of temporary vegetation that is growing when the water table is low.


There are different opinions as to how many people that actually are affected by the Belo Monte-dam. According to Norte Energia the sum is about 20 000 people, but then effects in the drained part of the river are not accounted for. If the population downstream are included the sum is at least 40 000 people that are directly affected in one way or another. The lower part of the city of Altamira will be flooded and more than 7 000 homes put under water. Poor people living in “palafitas”, simple houses on stilts by the riverside, in the outskirts of the town are particularly affected.

Palafitas -houses on stilts near the river, all of which will be inundated.

– We organize ourselves in groups with a dozen families in each, says Edizângela Alves Barros, coordinator for MAB among some of the palafitas-blocks in town. We arrange meetings, study and plan activities. In these groups we try to solve concrete problems in the area, caused by the dam building.

The population of Altamira has tripled in just three years and now amounts to more than 100 000 inhabitants. The city obviously can´t handle the onslaught. Electricity and water supplies, sewages systems, health care, schools – they all sag noticeably. The city has also become more dangerous, with more robbery, rape and violence against women and children. The number of sexual offences in the municipality has increased by 70 per cent in only three years.

The Belo Monte-dam will begin to fill already within two years, but the dwellers in the palafitas-houses have not yet received any clearance from the company on any relocation or compensation issues. They are worried for the future, that they will be worse of and forced to move to inferior housing far away from the city. Edizângela has got five kids, her husband is fisherman. He is afraid to lose his livelihood. She is afraid that her kids won´t get an education and for their security in the streets.

– We find it hard to get enough for our daily needs as it is. The company has given vague promises of new housing, schools and hospitals, but yet we haven’t seen any of this.


Apart from the city of Altamira there are many smaller villages that are affected by the dam. Father Jorge is a catholic priest that helps out in organizing the villagers.

I want to give a voice to the poor, says Father Jorge. Give them unbiased information about what’s happening and counteract disinformation from the company. There is a great uncertainty among the villagers concerning their future.

Father Jorge works in 16 villages that still are populated. Ten others have already been abandoned by their inhabitants in connection with the dam building at Belo Monte. One common problem among many of the affected people is that they have no ownership to the land where they live or farm, and therefore are not entitled to any compensation. The fishermen that use the river for their livelihood are also without an ownership to the waters what would stand in court.

– The dams destroy for all; fishermen, “Ribeirihnos” (riverine people) and indigenous people, say Maria Elena, representing the Afro-Brazilian minority in the area. The government has not consulted the people here before the construction of the dam started and they do not guarantee our human rights. More than 40 dams are planned for in the Amazon, Belo Monte is only one of the first.


The Belo Monte-dam is constructed where the Xingu River does a 100 kilometer bend on its way towards the Amazon River. Water flows downstream from the dam will diminish by 80 per cent in the Great Bend, or “Volta Grande”. Fishermen, “Ribeirihnos” and several indigenous populations, among them the Juruna and Arara and sixteen other smaller indigenous groups, are severely affected. Norte Energia claims that no Indigenous territories are to be flooded in this phase of the project, but instead the vital fisheries are threatened both upstream and downstream from the dam. In the “Volta Grande” there are at least a dozen endemic species of fish that are threatened by extinction. In total more than 600 species of fish are affected by the construction of the dam. Simultaneously malaria is expected to increase in the area, as there will be more pools of stagnant water for the mosquitos to lay eggs in.


500 kilometers of compact green forest canopy more to the west lays the gold mining town of Itaituba. Some 30 kilometers upstream from the city the Brazilian energy giants Electrobras and Electronorte plans for a series of five hydropower dams in the river Tapajos and its tributary Jamanxim. The combined power from these dams will be around 10 700 MW, about the same size as Belo Monte. The dams will affect flood 2 000 square kilometers of rainforest as well as two national parks and five national forest reserves. The borders of the protected areas are now redrawn to give way for the construction of the dams.

Maybe the strongest resistance to the planned these dams come from the indigenous group of Mundurukú, who have their core area along the Tapajos River.

– Our people suffer from many different projects; constructions of roads, gold mining and now the dams, says Francisco Iku, leader of an indigenous community in the proximity of Itaituba. We have during several years tried to have a dialogue with the government in Brasilia and we have meet with the minister for mines and energy several times. But we have not managed to get any response at all. On the contrary they tried to convince our leaders about the benefits of dams. But we were not willing to believe them.

This spring there came engineers and biologist to measure the area and to do an inventory of flora and fauna. Some of them where caught by irate Indians. The government responded with massive presence of troops as escort to the exploiters. This outraged many of the young among the Mundurukú who wanted to take up arms. Finally a federal court ruled out the military action.

Judge João Batista Moreira ruled that federal law and ILO Convention 169, to which Brazil is a part, “require that indigenous Mundurukú communities and other traditional populations threatened by the proposed dam be guaranteed a process of free, prior, and informed consultation and consent prior to further technical studies for dam construction.

– There are several thousand young of our people that have had the opportunity to learn about their rights and that have prepared to fight for their land by all means, says Francisco Iku. We´d rather give of our blood than we give up our land.


After hours on bumpy dirt roads one reaches the end of the road in the villages of Pimental by the shore of the Tapajos River. It is one of the villages where MAB actively is organizing the resistance against the dam. The flag of MAB is displayed on many walls in the village.

Here people live their whole life in the vicinity of the river. Their village will according to plans for the dams be submerged about 30 meters under water.

– This is almost like a paradise, one of the villagers entrust me. We have plenty of fish in the river, it´s like our fridge; we just go down and fetch what we need. The kids are playing there, we swim and sit under the large mango tree by the shore and have a chat. We are seldom in a hurry. But all this will be lost when the river rises.


The journey continues in a small boat with a roaring outboard motor that propels us up the rapids of The Tapajos. Our goal is to visit some small Mundurukú settlements further up the stream. Our driver turns skillfully among rocks and sandbanks, rapids and whirlpool to find navigable way. It is dry season and low water, yet is the river many hundreds meters wide.

Here and there are small clearings along the shore that marks singular residences. But most of the journey it´s untouched rainforest along the shoreline. This stretch of the river goes alongside the border of the Amazonia national park.

After some hours of boat ride we take shore in a small Mundurukú settlement. Chief Valter greets us in the small but newly built schoolhouse.

– Our whole village will be put under water if the dam is constructed. Our whole culture will be drowned. We live since long along this river and have all of our life here. No, we don´t want any dam to be built, we want to be able to hand over all that we got here to future generations.

According to Chief Valter the center of resistance among the Mundurukú is further upstream where his people have their demarcated indigenous territory. Here in middle Tapajos there are fewer indigenous settlements, but to the Mundurukú this too is their territory, although this is not regcognized by law.

– The river is our road, our water source and our source of food, says Chief Valter. Where will we go if the dam is built?

Chief Juarez and his family

Further upstream lays the Mundurukú settlement of Sawre Muybu. It is a slightly bigger village, with a simple schoolhouse, a small infirmary and even a diesel generator that provides electricity to the villagers. Here also the Indians live from what the river can bring, except for some meager slash and burn-fields in the surroundings. We are let to stay overnight here and after a long night in hammocks listening to a background choir of cicadas, frogs, apes and early morning roasters we gather in the morning to meet with the villagers in the schoolhouse.

An elderly man speaks up and says that he doesn´t trust in strangers. “So many come here to get information, but they give nothing back.” He refuses to shake our hands if we don´t want to help out in their struggle. But the young chief, Juarez, maybe more familiar to MAB and their work, greets us welcome and thinks it important to meet foreign journalists.

– The world has to know what is happening here. All will be lost under the water, the fisheries, our hunting grounds, yes all of nature here. This is one of the few areas where there still exist large tracts of continuous forests. When roads are made farmers will move in and chop down all of the forest to create cattle pasture. This land is sacred to us, our ancestors are buried here and our gods live in the river. Our young will lose their history.

The dam will bring nothing good to the Indians, according to Chief Juarez. The government and the energy companies are the only winners.

– Brazil don´t need more energy, says Antonio, the village teacher. But the dams will make us lose all good that we get from nature. The government has promised schools and health care if we agree on the dam building, but we have rights to those things anyway, even without the dams. We want them to respect our human rights according to the ILO convention of indigenous people’s rights. What they want to do here is illegal also according to Brazilian law. There is no democracy here. We have been in meetings with the ministry of mining and energy in Brasilia; they stated that the dams will be constructed no matter what we say. To us this equals dictatorship.


Belo Monte-dammen

The Belo Monte project

The Belo Monte-dam has been planned and debated since the middle of the seventies. The complex of dams and dykes that now is been built has been modified after earlier criticism and is now a so called “run of the river”-plant, with a much smaller dam than usual. Still more than 1 500 square kilometers of rainforest will be flooded. The Xingu River however has large seasonal variability in water flows. The plant has a maximum capacity of 11 000 MW, but is large part of the year calculated to produce only a third of this. To make the plant economically viable there is need for several regulations dams further upstream. Those are yet only in an early planning stage, but they will flood several thousand more square kilometers of rainforest.


Electricity energy sources in Brazil:

Hydro                 79 %
Biofuels             6 %
Fossil Fuels      12 %
Nuclear             3 %

In Brazil the need for more electrical power is growing with about five per cent each year. Two thirds of the resources allocated for climate investments until the year 2020 is directed towards hydropower plants. While deforestation constitutes three fourths of all greenhouse gas emissions in the country and the dams contribute notably to the same deforestation Brazil has also committed itself to reduce deforestation substantially during the same time frame. 

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